Sunday, December 5, 2010

It's Different Than Guitar Hero

By Greg Shelley

I'm in a lesson with a 10-year-old boy.  He is frustrated that he can't get his guitar to do what he expects.  He is a bright boy but his frame of reference is limited.  His face is all contorted like he might cry as his mother and I try to explain to him--"It's different than Guitar Hero."

This is a true account. I have seen several incidents like this.  The boy explains to me that he is an "expert" on Guitar Hero and proclaims "Yes of course he can play."  But then when he goes to make sound on his new guitar, he is unable to invoke even one clear note.  He presses down on the fretboard for the note "F" on the first string.  But he gets only a clunky dull thud.  Then he shakes his finger to throw off the pain because the string has pushed too deeply in.  He sucks on the aching finger and then blows on it as if to quell the hurt.  His fingers have not calloused yet.  He cannot press hard enough.  Then after a few tries, he starts to get it.

I guide him step by step through the notes on the first string explaining all the while as I go, "Now, Joey (fictitious name) when we really play a guitar it is very different.  We have to actually make the notes without pushing any buttons.  When you play Guitar Hero, you push buttons which help you imitate what we are trying to learn here for real."  "Joey," I look him in the eyes and gently say, "This is real guitar."  The look on his face is one of true amazement at this new discovery.  At 10, the boy should understand this already.

Joey soon got it.  But it took weeks of lessons for him to fully grasp the difference between the game and real guitar.  He soon blossomed into a pretty good guitar player and eventually an excellent guitarist for his age.

Virtual Life

This scenario may seem isolated and unimportant to all of us, except as it relates to Joey.  But it is part of what you could call a growing social norm.  That being--virtual life.  We have people playing video games that mimic life, when they could actually be living it.

Another student of mine recently explained that the music minister at his church could not not understand Guitar Hero.  This minister is reportedly quite an accomplished guitarist.  My student explained that the music minister ranted one day that: "While people are spending all this time and money trying to learn to play a game that lets you pretend to play a song on a guitar, they might have been able to actually learn to play the song on a real guitar."

Does It Matter?

So what does it matter?  It is the 21st century right?  Maybe guitar is obsolete.  Maybe learning to really play a guitar made of wood and steel is dumb.  For that matter, why learn to play any instrument when you can get video games that make it so easy to feel like you are playing?  It all makes sense.  Why drive a car when you can play a car driving game?  Why fly an airplane when they have games so real for that?  Why travel, play tennis, play football, go hunting or join the military?  There are games for everything now.

And then one day, we wake up and realize that the games are playing us.  While we were playing the games in all our spare time, the people who design and build the games, the people who finance and get rich off the games were out REALLY climbing mountains, fishing, hiking, swimming, traveling, and a thousand other things.  They were really learning to play a guitar.  That way, those who make the games could have real experiences to draw upon so that the games they design for the pretenders--the video gamers--would seem more real.

Okay, yes I have played video games.  I don't anymore.  It was 25 years ago and I could rack up millions of points on a game called Stargate and a few others.  I was lost in it for about 2 years.  But somewhere along the way I realized I was not living.  I was pretending to live. 

This is serious.  And it is changing our world.  Because if someone pulls the plug, it's the person who has been really living who will have the best chance at making it through.  It matters because people are losing touch with reality.  It is evident in the skewed ideas of people who set out to learn guitar with a false idea of what music is, that is, what it means to actually create something with one's own hands.  What does it mean to fashion music from a wooden box and 6 metal strings that you must manipulate in real time--and without electronic aids that make you think you are doing it?   What does it mean to get hard fingertips from the pain and abrasion of moving across the steel?

You know, I actually have heard a young music student say, "Yeah, I am a music producer myself."  And when asked what he produced he proclaimed: "I'm producing Led Zepplin right now, and Nirvana and some others."  Turns out, he thought producing music is the same as arranging an ordered playlist on his iPod.  Really!  He could not distinguish between making music for real and re-ordering iPod playlists of famous bands.  I know because I asked him specifically if he actually recorded the original music.  I kid you not, he just looked at me like I was stupid and said: "Yeah, huh?, Of course."  It took a lot of guitar lessons, but he actually came to realize that making music you can record for real is entirely different than making iPod playlists.

And I have heard there is a new guitar video game that has "real strings" so you "really" have to play it.  And I want to stand up and shout: "You are ripping yourself off! JUST GET A GUITAR! !  And maybe take some lessons.  It hurts a little sometimes but eventually you learn real skills that can be applied to real life.  You learn to engineer your own real live music instead of pretending.  And you can even play the acoustics without electricity!"

copyright Ó 2010 Greg Shelley,  all rights reserved

Friday, December 3, 2010

Melody and Madness

by Greg Shelley

1 Corinthians 14:7 (NIV)  "Even in the case of lifeless things that make sounds, such as the flute or harp, how will anyone know what tune is being played unless there is a distinction in the notes?"


I was in Guitar Center the other day--the famous music store.  As usual, there was another metal masher pounding out a random, undefined, chaotic, power chord jam.  I've talked to and known some of the metal-heads, as they are often called. All of them embrace the random and chaotic nature of their music with pride.  I'm sure there are those who don't but I have not met them.  Usually their style is random.  And among my many guitar students, it seems the word "random" has become a pop culture expression. 

Let me say, I would never seek to stop anyone from playing this way--that is, random, often with walls of sound.  During my nightclub years I played similar music for a living.  But the talking point here is melody.  And it is melody that is lacking from much of our music these days.  Not just the death-metal music but often more mainstream music has it's melody obscured by too many instruments, random chord structure, too many sound effects processors, or just too much sound. 

Historically, consider the "wall of sound" started by Phil Spector in the 1960's.  This music legend produced the The Beatles, The Ramones, Ike and Tina Turner, John Lennon and many others.  In the wall of sound type of production, the guitars are so drenched in compression and overdrive, or stacked on top of each other, track upon track, that the melody can be buried. Sad note: Phil Spector is now a convicted murderer currently serving 19-years-to-life in a California state prison. 

Other random and chaotic pioneers include the much loved Jimi Hendrix or Kurt Cobain, again both of whom played music I have enjoyed or played myself.  Sad that both of those icons met untimely deaths surrounded by scurrilous circumstances.

Not to disparage Phil or any other iconic musician, I have enjoyed much of the music from these historic figures. I mention Spector and Hendrix because they rose during what I think was the real start of it all--Cobain being more recent.  There was melody in the music of these icons.  But it was starting to be drowned out back then.  And it seems melody has been disappearing from mainstream music, little by little, decade after decade, ever since.  Even the melodic country music genre often is giving way to a hard driving sound wall.

History aside, I spend about 40 hours per week teaching people guitar, in individual sessions.  I've done this off and on since I was 14 years old.  I see lots of people on an individual basis.  Back in 1974, if I asked any of my students to hum the melody of their favorite song they could usually do it without thinking much. These days if I ask a student under the age of 25 to hum a melody from their favorite song I usually get a puzzled look.  They don't understand.  Either they don't know the melody, or don't know what a melody is, or their favorite song has no melody that is defined enough to remember.

May I divulge, one of my degrees is focused in psychology and I worked in the field for six years.  I pay attention to people's actions and words on such things.  And this I promise, I have noticed the trend towards a lack of melody or melodic understanding as it has developed gradually over the years.  Student by student, as well as in the media, this has become evident.


1 Samuel 16:23 (GW) "Whenever God's spirit came to Saul, David took the lyre and strummed a tune. Saul got relief {from his terror} and felt better, and the evil spirit left him."

As a former therapist, I used guitar with patients and saw, at times, remarkable results.  It was the tune, the melody, that brought the troubled mind into focus.  But the melody was always defined.  By contrast, I knew of patients who were obsessed with chaotic heavy metal madness--literally.  I knew one patient who would sit for hours just playing the same heavy metal jam over and over.  It would be fine if it was just practice.  But the jam was just a few seconds long and he played it perfectly--over and over for hours.  For him the loudness, the chaos, was an expression of what was in his mind.  He embraced it so much that it led him further into madness. 

By contrast, those patients I worked with who embraced melody and definable sweet songs always got better--dramatically better.  There are many stories like this I could tell--maybe another time.  It should be stated that I no longer am a therapist.  But this illustrates the point about melody which is so illuminated now in my guitar teaching and in my music.

Melody is about definition.  It is about clarity of thought.  Madness is about confusion and uncertainty.  And so I spend a lot of my time in private music lessons helping young people learn what a melody is.  That is, I teach them what a "tune" is that you can hum and remember and use to comfort yourself on your guitar or with your voice--when the iPod is not there.  The tune or melody is what fixes a song in our hearts so that we can recall it for whatever reason.  Consider the Psalms of the Bible which often begin with "to the tune of . . . "

So why does this matter? 

It goes to the idea that art and life mirror each other.  If our melodies are not well defined, if they are too obscure or too random to remember, what does that say about our ability as a nation, as communities or as individuals, to produce anything usable?  For example, if we set out to manufacture a car using the random and undefined premises which are taking over our music, hmm, well, I think you get it.  The car will be random and undefined and probably run the same way.  Nobody really wants a car that runs randomly, or indefinably.  We look for clearly dependable cars that are well defined, well appointed and clearly going to get us where we want to go on time. 

Hey! You can imagine the commercial:  "Buy our new Lexus, when you are in a tight spot, when the road is snowy or wet or rough, you can count on the randomness and undefined performance of our fine automobile." 

Anyway, our minds, our spirits, our personal well-being are all linked to this.  We must ask, are our thoughts defined, clear and available to be accessed for use?  Or are they cluttered, blurry and too covered with mumbo jumbo to be of any real productive value.  It matters because music is integrated with our minds.

As our music and art goes, most likely our industrious nature follows--or is leading.  Either way the result is the same.  It's the old question, "does art imitate life or does life imitate art."  Whether our nature is leading or following our art, still we should take notice.  It matters because we may be spiraling into an ineffectual life.  We should determine what is happening because it may be the "canary in the coal mine" telling us that the air is getting to be sub-standard--so to speak.  If our thoughts and our nature are without definition, it manifests in sub-standard work of all kinds.  This is irresponsibility and it produces a society unable to take care of itself well.

Of course, this is all conjecture, right?  Is the madness and moral decay in our society the result of undefined moral code?  Is it like the undefined melodies of our music? 

With God, the Bible and the name of Jesus Christ being wiped from our societal set of absolutes, our criteria for moral judgements regarding right and wrong is disappearing.  It is lost in a sea of loosely defined ideas about proper behavior.  If it feels good do it, right?  Do we have a consensus?  Of course, until it is inconvenient for the most powerful and elite.

Our politicians get away with fraud and lies on a daily basis.  Our courts turn loose criminals on technicalities.  Our laws are random because they change based on how good someone's lawyer is--how much they can afford--instead of on clearly defined commands and absolutes which spell out clearly how to behave. 

All of this matters because without absolutes everything is arbitrary.  Arbitrary absolutes are random.  And in this setting the tyrants and elitists abound.  Madness and usually oppression ensues.

Does having a random nature in our society lead to guitar players who play random undefinable melodies and walls of sound?  Or, is it the guitarists and producers who play this way that are leading society astray?  You've heard the old saying: "It's the Devil's music."  Hmm. 

Wait, I know!  Maybe the guitarists play that way because they just like to play that way.  Well, okay.  Never mind.

Isaiah 23:16 (ESV) "Take a harp; go about the city, O forgotten prostitute! Make sweet melody; sing many songs, that you may be remembered."

copyright Ó 2010 Greg Shelley,  all rights reserved

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Greg Shelley Guitar Students Perform in Edgewood

By Greg Shelley

I watched Josh Keenan and Jagger Hess last night.  Josh is a former student.  Jagger, well he may be moving on soon from Greg Shelley guitar lessons here at Private Guitar Enterprise--I mean, Jagger is getting to the point where he is able to learn on his own and could do fine without any lessons.  But I hope he stays for a while.

Josh, about 19 I think, is a former student.  He showed a performance level on par with many professionals.  He has only to incorporate original music instead of all cover tunes.  His sense of rhythm, continuity, definition and musical feel were all superior to most guitar and vocal performers you might hear.

Jagger is younger, 14 maybe, he is not far behind Josh in expertise.  He will become a very good musician. I'm using professional measures here as the standard.

As a guitar teacher, it is rewarding to have had some part in both of these young men's development.

copyright Ó 2010 Greg Shelley,  all rights reserved